Today, dear readers, I’m taking you to school. We’re here to learn about Larry Cohen, the enigmatic New York cult filmmaker responsible for giving astute audiences movies about killer babies, Aztec death gods and evil marshmallow whip. Jumping into a director’s body of work can be daunting, especially when the films in question have never gotten the love and followings of more widely appreciated genre films. Cohen’s films look cheap and were often made for even cheaper, but they contain a manic energy and authentic New York attitude hard to find in other B movies. I’ll discuss the best jumping-on points into Cohen’s catalogue, and where to go from there.
Cohen 101: Killer food and Black royalty
Black Caesar is something of an outlier in Cohen’s filmography. In a career filled with science fiction and horror, this 1973 film is an unapologetic entry into the Blaxploitation genre, standing tall even amongst luminaries like Shaft and Black Belt Jones. Fred “The Hammer” Williamson plays Tommy Gibbs, an enterprising criminal who seeks to build an empire within the violently racist society he lives in.
Cohen’s films often tackle high concepts with a sense of levity, but none of that is found here. Black Caesar is an angry, ugly film about an angry, ugly man who has absorbed all the hate and vitriol thrown his way throughout his life and become a monster for it. To build his name up, he’s forced to work within the largely racist and hateful mob system. Much of the film’s script—also by Cohen—is about how much dignity and humanity Gibbs will sacrifice to achieve his goals. It lacks many of the goofier elements of Cohen’s films, but his love of hot-button issues shines through.
While Black Caesar approaches societal racism with all the subtlety of a meat tenderizer to the skull, the far sillier 1985 film The Stuff uses a ridiculous premise to skewer rampant consumerism. A mysterious, possibly alien, goop starts spilling out of a snowbank and—wouldn’t you know it—just happens to be the most delicious and impossibly nutritious snack the United States has ever known. Before the first act is over, the U.S. is crazy for the thick, creamy snack. It’s a shame, then, that The Stuff is also sentient and will eat you from the inside out. As the entire snack food industry attempts to pick up the pieces in a society which no longer has any need for other products, a small number of individuals (including longtime Cohen cohort Michael Moriarty) learn of the true nature of The Stuff and seek to destroy the snack before it takes over the world literally, not just culturally.
Featuring some delightfully gross special effects and a slightly higher budget than most Cohen films, The Stuff is both a great palate cleanser after the darkness of Black Caesar and a good introduction to the wild world of aliens and monsters to come.
Cohen 201: Stop-motion monsters and evil infants
The 1982 film Q (also known as Q: The Winged Serpent) features the hallmarks of Cohen’s work: a high body count and even higher concept, an off-the-rails performance from Michael Moriarty, a layer of rogue filmmaking charm and a police procedural subplot. Q improves on this formula by featuring lots of very cheap stop-motion animated monster action. Ray Harryhausen this is not; the titular flying lizard-beast looks janky and awkward at the best of times, but that adds to, rather than detracts from, the proceedings. Everything else in the film is lovingly rough around the edges, so why would the main attraction be any different?
While the resurrected Aztec monster is using roofs of New York City as a buffet line, the human element comes into the film in the form of Moriarty’s Jimmy Quinn, a failed criminal who has decided to use his exclusive knowledge of the monster’s roost as a bargaining chip with the New York Police Department, selling it off only when he feels he has been properly paid. Quinn is a complete trainwreck, and Moriarty sells the everloving hell out of his boozy, desperate performance.
Q also contains Cohen’s trademark rogue filmmaking tactics. Getting a permit to send actors with guns running through the Chrysler building would cost a lot of money, so Cohen shot the scenes illegally, getting the footage before the cops showed up. This renegade approach to filmmaking adds an extra layer of illicit fun to the film.
Getting a permit to send actors with guns running through the Chrysler building would cost a lot of money, so Cohen shot the scenes illegally, getting the footage before the cops showed up.
Speaking of illicit fun, the primary goal of the main character in 1974’s It’s Alive is to kill his infant son. It’s not a plot you’re going to see in a lot of larger Hollywood productions. Of course, said infant is a horrible mutant with razor-sharp teeth and a murderous instinct, so I’m not going to judge our protagonist.
It’s Alive had a troubled production, and the film was received poorly before a reworked marketing campaign and a rerelease helped it become a sizable hit.
Still, none of the film’s production issues are apparent on screen, as the film effortlessly hits all the requisite monster movie tropes one after another—just, you know, with a killer baby instead of a normal monster. It’s one of Cohen’s leanest films, taking as much from the popular-at-the-time medical thriller genre as much as it does from other horror movies. Poorly tested birth control drugs are the cause of the baby’s mutation, allowing Cohen to work in some ripped-from-the-headlines hand wringing over the newest contraceptives.
Cheap, mean and loads of fun, both Q and It’s Alive are perfect ways to continue your Larry Cohen pilgrimage.
Cohen 301: Alien Jesus and townie vampires
After a man opens fire in the streets of New York, killing over a dozen people, he claims a divine being commanded him to do it. This opening scene—and each one following—make viewing God Told Me To in 2018 chilling. Sure, the God in question may or may not be a half-alien entity with mind control powers, but Cohen milks a ton of drama and tension out of positing that random acts of violence could explode anywhere, at any time.
The fear and paranoia the film deals with are all too real; it’s rare that a movie unintentionally becomes more relevant with each passing year. The massacres that occur throughout the film portray all the confusion and terror which ensue in the minutes following a violent attack. It’s almost a relief when a higher power does reveal itself to be behind the killings; that’s more than we get in real life.
Much more lighthearted is Cohen’s A Return to Salem’s Lot (1984), a loose sequel to the Stephen King book and miniseries of the same name. Its sequel status is tenuous at best: No characters return and no plotlines are continued. Instead, it feels like Cohen really enjoyed the “vampires take over a small town” concept of the original story and threw away all of the Stephen King nonsense he didn’t like.
Michael Moriarty plays a cold-hearted anthropologist who discovers you can’t go home again, especially when home is now under the complete control of a powerful vampire. It’s a comedic take on a self-serious story, and all the actors are given plenty of scenery to chew on in their ridiculous performances. It’s almost certainly the best film that features a Nazi hunter murdering vampires. (That’s “Nazi hunter” as in a man who professionally hunts Nazis, not a hunter who happens to be a member of the Third Reich.) You might be able to see why fans of the original miniseries were confused and put off.
Cohen Post-Grad Studies
Once you’re done absorbing all the Cohen you can handle, I’d highly recommend the new documentary King Cohen (2017), assuming you’re not completely done with him by the end of all these films.
If you do come out the other side a fan, good news: Cohen is still an active scriptwriter in Hollywood and has at least two different film pitches currently being considered. It’s heartening to see that a guy as bold and relentlessly entertaining as Cohen hasn’t been chewed up and spit out by the Hollywood machine.